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Martha Ann Caffrey (1884–1975)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Martha Ann Caffrey née Irving (1884-1975) housewife, community worker and political activist

Birth: 17 December 1884 in Blaydon, Durham, England, daughter of Isaac Irving, glasshouse warehouseman later railway worker, and Mary Jane, née Robinson. Marriage: 17 May 1913 at Chatswood, New South Wales, with Seventh Day Adventist forms to Thomas Caffrey (1879-1939), labourer born Manchester, England. They had three daughters and one son. Death: 11 June 1975 in hospital at Waterfall, NSW. Religion: Catholic. 

  • Was a servant, working as a domestic cook at Tynemouth, Durham, in 1911.
  • First worked in an election campaign for the Australian Labor Party in Dubbo in about 1912.
  • Her husband Thomas, a member of the Postal Workers’ Union, was sometime president and secretary of the West Marrickville branch and president of the ALP’s Federal Electorate Council for Lang [Petersham] in Sydney. He was a Labor candidate for Marrickville municipal council in 1925.
  • Both Martha and Thomas were appointed justice of the peace by 1927.
  • She was an ardent worker for the party, particularly during election campaigns and a member of several branches over time, including Phillip and Belmore, and was convener of West Sydney preselection ballot in 1928. In November 1933 when she was ill, it was reported that the Paddington municipal by-election was the first election in eighteen years on which she had not worked.
  • A stalwart of the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee, she was elected to several executive positions including assistant-secretary (1932 & 1934), minutes secretary (1933 & 1935) and delegate to the ALP’s Easter Conference. She was vice-president in 1934.
  • In the 1929 timber workers’ dispute she collected subscriptions for the relief fund, and provided her home at Surry Hills as one of the ALP relief depots where pickets were regularly provided with hot meals. In June that year her home at 3 Bellevue Street was raided by police while pickets were having a meal. She also supported the Miners’ Relief Committee.
  • During the depression Caffrey visited many families in distress, distributing food and clothing. From 1932 she managed a hostel for the poor and homeless at Redfern, in “the great, grimy building” that was once Redfern fishmarket, at Gibbon street, where unemployed men, pensioners, children and “the sick and dispirited” found a haven and were given “clothes, meals and shelter for days, without any charge”. In 1934 it was reported to have supplied 60,000 meals and put on a Christmas party for 150 children.
  • In 1935 she was also minute secretary of the committee managing the Women’s Hostel for Homeless Unemployed Women and Girls at 334 Sussex Street, of which Mrs S. Stapleton was president. The annual report disclosed that 1960 women and girls and one infant had been housed and 5476 meals served. Many of the women had not been in receipt of the government food allowance.
  • In January 1938, representing Redfern branch, Caffrey was elected to the provisional executive at the Labor unity conference held at the Sydney Trades Hall and in March she spoke on Radio 2KY about Labor’s unemployment policy on unemployment.
  • In 1938 “Mother Caffrey’s” hostel at Redfern closed when the city council decided to lease the building to a manufacturer.
  • Martha Caffrey lived at Cronulla in 1975.
  • Cause of death: gangrene of foot, arteriosclerosis and hydronephrosis (right kidney).

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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Caffrey, Martha Ann (1884–1975)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Martha Caffrey, 1936

Martha Caffrey, 1936

Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 11 April 1936, p 7

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Irving, Martha Ann

17 December, 1884
Blaydon, Durham, England


11 June, 1975 (aged 90)
Waterfall, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Political Activism